Although football is the most popular sport in the world, it is not played everywhere. Indeed, there is one country in the world where it has not yet caught on. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get to know the Marshall Islands, located 12,000 km from Estonia.
To start telling their football story, we must first talk about the island country itself with a population of 42,000. Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Marshall Islands – to be precise, they consist of five islands and 29 coral atolls – were for a long time in the possession of different countries, until independence from the United States in 1979.
Although the presidential republic has been a member of the United Nations since 1991, it continues to be very dependent on the United States. Namely, the island lacks natural mineral resources (read: industry), which is why the main activities there are fishing and agriculture, which do not exactly support the economy.
Instead, the country’s main source of income is renting the Kwajalein Atoll to the US so that the latter can maintain a military base there. It is an extremely generous deal, but it’s also a way for the Americans to reduce their guilt for the hydrogen bombs dropped on the Marshall Islands in the 1950s and the nuclear tests conducted there…
It’s about money and space
For those wondering why all of the above, a quick explanation: the Marshall Islands don’t have much money, which is why they don’t play football there either. More precisely: at a backyard level, of course, anyone can hit the ball: but we are talking about organised league-level activity here.
This wasn’t done in the Marshall Islands for a long time, but the reason was not just the money. Another major obstacle in the 181 km2 country was space. Or rather the lack of it. In a situation where practically every square meter counts, it is not easy to build football infrastructure. This is especially so in a situation where the lion’s share of the population is keen on US sports (baseball and basketball).
Why is there no organised football in the Marshall Islands?
-We are one of the most remote places on earth
-US sports such as baseball & basketball are more popular
-No football infrastructure
-No international football body membership
-We have no local football role models. Yet pic.twitter.com/jW5bjkZgQj
— SoccerFedMI (@SoccerFedMI) January 11, 2023
It all started in 2020
However, in 2020, the country took the first official steps to change the matter. Namely, the local football association (MISF) was founded then, and Lloyd Owers was brought in from England as its technical director last year. The goal set for him is simple: the development of the game in the country.
“It’s a long-term project, that’s what fascinated me about it,” 34-year-old Owers explained why he accepted the offer. “It’s an opportunity to be part of something bigger: we’re still talking about the only country in the world that doesn’t have its national team!”
In addition, the local football enthusiasts’ ambition impressed the Brit from Oxfordshire: “They don’t just want to play among themselves, they want to become a member of both Oceania (OFC) and FIFA and be part of a big football family. They want to take part in both the World Cup qualifiers and the Oceania championships.”
However, both Owers and locals understand that this will not happen overnight. Initially, they prepared a ten-year plan, where the main focus will be on the grassroots level, including adding football to school curricula.
It is in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth
At the same time, they are also toiling away on the foreign front, quietly assembling the Marshall Islands men’s national team. This fall, a shirt inspired by the colors of the national team’s flag – made from recycled plastic – was introduced to the public, and the first meeting in history is expected to be held in the summer of next year.
This is in some ways essential because internationalism and global exposure are the real reason why the Marshall Islands have their eyes on football. With the help of football, they hope to draw attention to the fact that they are disappearing from the face of the Earth – literally.
Due to rising sea levels, it is predicted that more than half of the current land area of the country will be underwater by 2050. “If climate change continues like this, soon we won’t have any land to play football on!” said Shem Livai, one of the founders of the local football association.
According to him, while in the past in the capital Majuro, floods were seasonal, now they happen practically every full moon, i.e. at high tide, thus destroying crops, homes and families… “We need to draw the world’s attention to the fact that climate change is destroying us. We will try to do it through sports,” said Livai.
The cool sports of Micronesia Games!
Although the Marshall Islands football wheel has so far been rolling stubbornly, it is expected to finally gain momentum in the coming year. This fall, the foundation of an indoor football league with four participants was laid in the country, and the construction of the national stadium, which was delayed due to COVID-19, should finally be completed next year.
All so that they could host the 10th Micronesia Games in the stadium in July-August. True, this time without football still.
During the event Pacific’s best in the following will be crowned: athletics, 3 x 3 basketball, beach volleyball, baseball, lawn tennis, (open sea) swimming, table tennis, volleyball, weightlifting, wrestling, spearfishing, va’a i.e. one-man paddling, and the Micronesian multi-sport event, which includes climbing a coconut tree, coconut shelling, javelin shooting, swimming and diving.